The 2019-20 college basketball season will begin with a bang on Tuesday (November 5), as the top four teams in the preseason AP Poll will be featured in the Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden. The first matchup will be the No. 3 Kansas Jayhawks vs. the No. 4 Duke Blue Devils, followed by the top-ranked Michigan State Spartans vs. the second-ranked Kentucky Wildcats.
Unlike last year, when Duke was the clear-cut favorite to win the National Championship, this season is wide open. In my estimation, there are at least 12 teams with a legitimate shot to cut down the nets at the end of March Madness. Of course, there is usually at least one sleeper that sneaks into the Final Four every year, though only one team seeded lower than third has won it all over the past 22 years (7th-seeded Connecticut in 2014).
With that said, I present summaries of the teams that I consider to be the best in the nation. My rankings differ from the Hoops Prospects Team Rankings, which are based each team’s collective pro potential, and long-term potential often does not determine how successful a team will be in the present.
The Top 25
1. Kentucky – Featuring three top-50 prospects and eight top-200 prospects, the Wildcats also top HP’s preseason Team Rankings. Kentucky has a nice blend of athleticism and size, and the team also has excellent depth, with four quality players returning, plus grad transfer Nate Sestina and the second-ranked recruiting class in the nation joining the mix. The Wildcats’ strength should be their ability to create havoc on the defense end and score in transition. Sophomore point guard Ashton Hagans, the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year, and junior center Nick Richards, who finished second in the conference with 4.2 blocks per 40 minutes, return, and they will be bolstered by freshman forward Kahlil Whitney, who has an NBA-ready body and the athleticism to guard multiple positions. Meanwhile, dynamic freshman guard Tyrese Maxey should be the team’s top offensive threat. Not only can Maxey effectively score at all three levels, but he is also a more-than-capable playmaker. Sestina, a stretch four, and freshman wing Johnny Juzang will add scoring punch from deep.
2. Duke – Last season, the Blue Devils became the prime example of how relying on “one-and-dones” is not the best formula for winning a national championship. Despite having a lineup that consisted of three top-10 picks in the 2019 NBA Draft (Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, and Cam Reddish), Duke fell short of the Final Four. Heading into this season, Duke’s roster is not nearly as intimidating, but there are still plenty of reasons to be optimistic. The team features a trio of top-25 prospects in sophomore floor general Tre Jones, who led the ACC with an assist-turnover ratio of 3.6 last season, freshman center Vernon Carey, a huge inside force, and freshman forward Matthew Hurt, a versatile stretch four that might be the team’s top offensive threat. The roster also includes four-star freshman wing Wendell Moore, four-star freshman shooting guard Cassius Stanley, and senior forward Javin DeLaurier, who averaged 5.4 steals plus blocks per 40 minutes last season.
3. Michigan State – The Spartans return the majority of the key players that led them to the Final Four last season, including senior point guard Cassius Winston, a National Player of the Year candidate, underrated big man Xavier Tillman, and sophomore wing Aaron Henry, who is primed for a breakout season. The team is well stocked in the frontcourt with freshman Malik Hall and sophomores Marcus Bingham and Gabe Brown – all three were top-100 recruits, but lack experience. The main concern is at shooting guard, where senior Joshua Langford continues to be hampered by injuries, leaving the job to often-injured senior Kyle Ahrens, and putting a lot of pressure on freshman combo guard Rocket Watts to immediately step up.
4. Kansas – The Jayhawks will try to rebound from a disappointing season that featured injuries, off-court distractions, and underachieving performances. Kansas failed to win the Big 12 Title for the first time since 2004, and potential distractions continue to loom due to allegations of NCAA rules violations. It’s unlikely the team will suffer any disciplinary action this season, and if that’s the case, Kansas should be a serious contender for the National Championship. The strength of the team will be five returning players: center Udoka Azubuike, a dominating interior force, speedy point guard Devon Dotson, wing Ochai Agbaji, who displayed flashes of brilliance last season as a freshman, guard Marcus Garrett, a defensive standout, and power forward Silvio De Sousa, a former top-40 recruit, who played in just 20 games over the past two seasons due to NCAA rules violations. The 7-foot, 270-pound Azubuike has All-American potential. A wrist injury limited him to nine games last season, but two seasons ago, when playing just 20.4 minutes per game, he averaged 13.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.7 blocks, while shooting 77 percent from the floor.
5. Florida – The Gators should return to national prominence this season, thanks to a trio of talented sophomores (point Andrew Nembhard, forward Keyontae Johnson, and wing Noah Locke), a highly productive grad transfer (center Kerry Blackshear), and a pair of highly touted freshman (wing Scottie Lewis and guard Tre Mann). Nembhard, Johnson, and Lewis are all top-notch defenders. Nembhard (2.6 assist-turnover ratio) is also one of the top playmakers in the country. Blackshear is a consistent inside-outside scoring threat and an excellent passer from the paint. Mann adds dynamic scoring ability from all three levels.
6. Louisville – It’s just Chris Mack’s second year as head coach, but his team should be a force in both the Atlantic Coast Conference and the NCAA Tournament this season. The Cards are led by Preseason All-American Jordan Nwora, a junior forward, who finished sixth in the ACC in scoring (17.0 PPG) and tied for eighth in the conference in rebounding (7.6) last season. Nwora is the team’s lone star, but the roster does feature tremendous depth. In addition to Nwora, five significant contributors from last season return, and a deep recruiting class (ranked 12th in the nation) and point guard Lamarr Kimble, a grad transfer who averaged 15.6 points per game at St. Joseph’s last season, will bolster the returning core.
7. Gonzaga – Per usual, the Zags have a loaded frontcourt, including senior forward Killian Tillie, who may be the best deep shooting big in the nation, sophomore center Filip Petrusev, who posted a solid player efficiency rating of 23.5 last season, and three talented freshmen (forward Anton Watson, power forward Drew Timme, and center Pavel Zakharov). The shortest of the five is Watson at 6’8’’, with the average height of the group being 6’10’’. The main concern is the health of Tillie, who was limited to 15 games last season and is currently out with a knee injury. The Zags’ backcourt doesn’t feature the same type of long-term potential, but it is in solid hands with grad transfer Admon Gilder and junior Corey Kispert. Sophomore combo guard Joel Ayayi, an All-Star this summer for France in the FIBA Under-19 World Cup, has the most upside among the guards on the roster.
8. Maryland – The Terrapins lost just one key player (center Bruno Fernando) from last season’s squad that won 23 games and made it to the second-round of the NCAA Tourney. Returning is senior point guard Anthony Cowan, who averaged 15.6 points and 4.4 assists per game last season, and a very talented sophomore class that includes power forward Jalen Smith, sharpshooting wing Aaron Wiggins, and underrated guard Eric Ayala. Smith, who is nicknamed “Sticks,” flashed great potential last season, and should have a breakout year after adding strength and working on his outside shot.
9. Villanova – The Wildcats didn’t play up to their usual standards last season, but they still managed to win their fifth Big East Title in the last six years because the conference as a whole had a down year. This season, they must replace their two graduated stars, forward Eric Paschall and guard Phil Booth. Fortunately, Nova has landed top-10 recruiting classes in back-to-back years, and has a lot of potential waiting to be tapped. Returning starters, point guard Collin Gillespie, forward Saddiq Bey and forward Jermaine Samuels, plus reserve center Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, are all solid players, but they will not be enough to take this team far in March. Big things will be needed from a pair of 5-star freshmen, forward James Robinson-Earl and shooting guard Bryan Antoine. Unfortunately, Antoine is recovering from shoulder surgery, and he could miss a significant portion of the season.
10. Memphis – The Tigers lost five of their top six scorers from last season, but thanks to the top recruiting class in the country, they should resume being a serious contender for the National Championship, after a long hiatus. All seven of their incoming freshmen are either four-star or five-star recruits, and four were ranked among the top 50. The sky is the limit for this group, but the squad’s lack of experience will likely be an issue in the NCAA Tournament. The highest-ranked recruits are center James Wiseman (No. 1), forward Precious Achiuwa (No. 14), combo guard Boogie Ellis (No. 36), and power forward DJ Jeffries (No. 45). Wiseman, who is currently the top-ranked prospect on the HP Draft Board, is a 7-foot-1, 240-pound mobile big man with a 7-foot-6 wingspan. What separates him from most centers is his agility, his ability to put the ball on the floor, and his developing outside game.
11. Oregon – Thanks to a nice mix of upperclassmen and the fourth-ranked recruiting class in the country, the Ducks should be in contention for the PAC-12 Title and more. The top returning player is senior point guard Payton Pritchard, who went on a tear at the end of last season and led the team to the Sweet Sixteen. The Ducks’ newcomers include two five-star freshmen, forward C.J. Walker and center N’Faly Dante, who is not yet eligible to play due to NCAA rules. Two senior transfers, shoot guard Anthony Mathis and power forward Shakur Juiston, will also be major contributors. Mathis, who made 43.1 percent of his threes during his four years at New Mexico, is deadly from deep, while Juiston is a high-energy player who contributes in many ways.
12. North Carolina – The Tar Heels must replace their top five scorers from last season, three of whom were All-ACC performers, Coby White, Cam Johnson, and Luke Maye. The team’s only returning starter is center Garrison Brooks. Replacing White will be freshman point guard Cole Anthony, the son of former NBA point Greg Anthony. The younger Anthony is currently the No. 4 prospect on the HP Draft Board due to his ability to impact a game as a scorer, passer, and defender. The Tar Heels other prized recruit is five-star big man Armando Bacot, a low-post threat and a good shot blocker. Also, expect big contributions from sophomore wing Leaky Black, a 3-and-D type player, who saw limited action last season, partially due to injuries.
13. LSU – With most of the fourth-ranked 2018 recruiting class returning, the Tigers should remain one of the top teams in the SEC. The sophomore class includes shooting guard Javonte Smart, power forward Emmitt Williams, and small forward Darius Days – all three were top-60 recruits. They will be joined by 6-foot-9, five-star freshman Trendon Watford, who will likely start at center. Watford is not a true five, but his all-around ability will give the Tigers great versatility on both ends of the court. The reliable and heady Skylar Mays should take over as floor general for the departed Tremont Waters. While Mays may not be as skilled as Waters, who averaged 15.3 points and 5.8 assists last season, the senior is far less prone to making careless turnovers and is a better defender. Senior wing Marlon Taylor, arguably the most explosive dunker in college basketball, also returns.
14. Virginia – The reigning National Champions have three very important pieces to replace – forward DeAndre Hunter, shooting guard Kyle Guy and point guard Ty Jerome, all of whom were All-ACC selections last season. Senior forward Mamadi Diakite, who averaged three blocks per 40 minutes last season, will anchor the Cavaliers’ normally stingy defense. The Cavs’ frontcourt will also feature 7-foot-1 Jay Huff, a soft shooting junior center who made 45.2 percent of his threes last season, and senior forward Braxton Key, an elite defender. The backcourt is a more suspect, however, with Kihei Clark, a diminutive sophomore, taking over as the full-time floor general, and freshman Casey Morsell trying to fill Guy’s shoes.
15. Texas Tech – Last season, Texas Tech relied heavily on wing Jarrett Culver, the sixth overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, on the offensive end, and his production will be difficult to replace. However, the main reason that the Red Raiders were the runner-up for the National Championship was their stifling team defense, and they should be tough on that end of the court again, thanks to the leadership of Head Coach Chris Beard. Much of the scoring load will likely be shared by three guards: underrated point Davide Moretti, who made 46 percent of his threes last season, sophomore Kyler Edwards (45 percent from deep last season), and top recruit Jahmius Ramsey, an explosive three-level scorer. Transfer forward Chris Clarke will bring toughness and energy to the frontcourt, but unlike last season, the team lacks a true rim protector.
16. Washington – The Huskies’ frontcourt should be in good hands, thanks to a pair of top-10 recruits, forwards Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels. Stewart is a bully in the paint, while McDaniels has an inside-outside game and is a good all-around defender. Junior Nahziah Carter, an athletic wing who appears ready to take his game up a notch, should complement the pair of freshmen nicely. The team’s main concern is at guard, where Mattise Thybulle, the reigning PAC-12 Defensive Player of the Year, and Jaylen Nowell, the reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year, must be replaced. Kentucky transfer Quade Green, who was recently granted immediate eligibility, will help offset the loss of Nowell, with his playmaking ability and outside shooting skills.
17. Seton Hall – The Pirates are led by senior guard Myles Powell, a Preseason All-American, who averaged 23.1 points per game last season. Powell is the only star on the team, but the Pirates have depth and experience. The defense will be anchored by 7-foot-2 rim protector Ike Obiagu, a transfer from Florida State, while senior point guard Quincy McKnight is a perimeter defensive stopper. Junior wing Myles Cale, the team’s second leading scorer from last season, and junior power forward Sandro Mamukelashvili, a stretch big, will provide scoring to complement Powell.
18. Arizona – Turmoil still looms in Arizona, and what appeared to be a deep team a few months ago is now dangerously thin. This summer, sophomore combo guard Brandon Williams, the team’s top returning scorer, was ruled out for the season due to a knee injury, and four-star recruit Terry Armstrong decided to turn pro and play in Australia. Additionally, it was recently announced that sophomore wing Devonaire Doutrive is suspended indefinitely by the team. These developments mean that senior center Chase Jeter is the team’s most notable returnee. It also means that the Wildcats will rely heavily on three freshmen, point guard Nico Mannion, wing Josh Green, and power forward Zeke Nnaji (currently sidelined with an ankle injury) – all top-40 recruits. Mannion and Green are both top-20 prospects for the 2020 NBA draft, and they should combine to be one of the more dynamic tandems in the nation. The heady Mannion might prove to be the best pure point in the country, while Green has tremendous athleticism and is an elite finisher around the rim.
19. Ohio State – The Buckeyes return six regular contributors from last season, including junior center Kaleb Wesson, a powerful beast in the paint, and sophomore wing Luther Muhammad, a standout perimeter defender. The roster also includes three promising freshmen, combo guard D.J. Carton and forwards E.J. Lidell and Alonzo Gaffney, all top-50 recruits. Additionally, Florida State transfer C.J. Walker gives the team experience at point guard.
20. Texas – Despite winning the NIT last year without star center Jaxson Hayes, who missed the postseason tournament due to injury, the Longhorns are not receiving much love this preseason. However, their roster is very deep and has a few very promising prospects. Hayes has moved on to the NBA, but Texas remains loaded with big men, including two freshmen, Will Baker and Kai Jones, both top-50 recruits. Sophomore combo guard Courtney Ramey, the team’s leading 3-point shooter from last season (38.6 percent), should take a significant step forward this season. Also, Andrew Jones, a redshirt sophomore shooting guard, who was considered a potential first-round pick in 2018, is back. He missed almost all of the last two seasons after he was diagnosed with leukemia in January of 2018. Lastly, the addition of new assistant coach Luke Yaklich, a defensive mastermind, formerly with Michigan, should help, as well.
21. Florida State – The Seminoles are loaded with talent on the wings with Patrick Williams, a very explosive freshman who ranks 32nd on the latest HP Draft Board, sophomore Devin Vassell, and junior M.J. Walker. The point guard position is also in good hands, with senior Trent Forrest (1.9 assist-turnover ratio last season) running the show. If nothing else, this group will provide excellent perimeter defense. With the graduation of Christ Koumadje and Mfiondu Kabengele, Florida State may lack a dominant presence in the paint for the first time in recent memory. No one in Tallahassee seems overly excited about the projected replacements – freshman Balsa Koprivica and grad transfer Dominik Olejniczak – though both are seven-footers.
22. Xavier – A solid defensive and rebounding team last season, the Musketeers won eight of their last 11 games and finished with a 19-16 record, ending the campaign with an overtime loss to Texas in the second-round of the NIT. Four starters return from that squad – forwards Naji Marshall and Tyrique Jones and guards Paul Scruggs and Quentin Gooden. That core will be bolstered by grad transfer Jason Carter (forward), who averaged 16.5 points for Ohio last season, and athletic freshman guard KyKy Tandy.
23. Purdue – The Boilermakers have great size, and should make it tough for opponents to score this season. Junior center Matt Haarms (7’3’’) averaged 2.1 blocks per game last season. Sophomore big man Trevion Williams (6’9’’, 270 pounds) showed great promise as an inside scorer and rebounder last season. Sophomore forward Anthony Wheeler (6’9’’) flashed great all-around ability as a freshman, and he appears primed for a breakout year. Lastly, 6-foot-6 junior Nojel Eastern, a defensive combo guard, is on the perimeter. Purdue’s big concern is replacing the outside shooting of both Carsen Edwards and Ryan Cline. The team hopes that sophomore wing Sasha Stefanovic, who made 41 percent of his threes last season, can pick up some of that slack.
24. Michigan – The Wolverines’ new head coach, Juwan Howard, has a tough act to follow. Former head coach John Beilein had a knack for getting the most out of his players, and his recent Michigan teams were known for both offensive execution and stifling defense. Howard has a pair of senior starters returning in point guard Zavier Simpson and center Jon Teske, and last year’s top reserve, forward Isaiah Livers, who led the team with a three-point percentage of 42.6 last season, should thrive with an expanded role. The team hopes that sophomore Brandon Johns, an athletic stretch four, will also flourish with more playing time and experience. The Wolverine with the most potential, freshman wing Franz Wagner, will not be available for at least a few weeks due to a wrist injury. The 18-year-old Wagner, the younger brother of Moritz, performed very well in the German BBL last season.
25. Tennessee – The Volunteers are not going to be able to replace the inside production of departed power forward Grant Williams, a two-time SEC Player of the Year. However, the Vols have plenty of talent on the perimeter, with freshman Josiah-Jordan James and seniors Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden. The ultra-athletic Bowden can do a little bit of everything from the wing position, and will likely be the team’s top offensive threat. James, a 6-foot-6 point guard who currently ranks at No. 25 on the HP Draft Board, also can contribute in a lot of ways, but he is best known for being dangerous in transition. Junior forward Yves Pons is a physical specimen, who brings toughness and defense to the table, but he will need to be more of a factor on the offensive end for the Vols to be serious contenders this season.
Best of the Rest
- Mississippi State
- Notre Dame
- Saint Mary’s
- Utah State